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Beyond Badges: Why Personalized Learning Advocates Need to Care about Blockchain

Tom Vander Ark of Getting Smart has argued that “parent-managed learner profiles” will by key to both enabling and scaling personalization in education. As Tom envisions, these profiles would include all of the elements of traditional school transcripts, supplemented with richer, more nuanced, and actionable information about student learning attainment, achievement, and needs. Critical to this vision is the ability for the student transcript to both be easily portable (and under direct parent/student control) and decentralized (in that traditional education institutions should not completely control or dictate its contents).

Beyond Badges: Why Personalized Learning Advocates Need to Care about BlockchainWhile digital badging and its underlying technical approach points a way forward to solving some of the issues associated with a ‘distributed proof of learning’ system, there has emerged another approach that might hold even more promise: blockchain technology.

For those not familiar with the concept of the blockchain (and I wasn’t until I serendipitously learned of Gridcoin, the socially-conscious kissing cousin to the more famous crypto-currency Bitcoin), here’s a simplified description:

The blockchain is a secure, openly replicated and distributed, ledger of every…transaction ever executed. In addition to this data being openly shared amongst all participating services, there is a mechanism to constantly identify discrepancies and test them across the entire network, automatically identifying and overriding illegitimate transactions as it goes.

(excerpted from Forget Bitcoin – Blockchain is coming: Blockchain will be the banking MP3 disruptor)

In essence, blockchain technology allows a system of trust to be maintained in the absence of a central authority. Here’s an explainer from the futurist Don Tapscott:

Now re-listen to this piece by Tapscott considering that the institutions that could be disintermediated are schools (and not banks) and the transactions that could be recorded would not be money (or Bitcoin) but proof of learning. In this way, I believe blockchain offers something different than what is brought by the digital badging movement (and I was not surprised that others even closer to this work than I also have noticed this connection, perhaps most notably Doug Belshaw).

For that reason, I was struck by the recent announcement by Holberton School to authenticate its academic certificates with the Bitcoin blockchain, marking the first time (apparently) that an educational institution has deployed this approach in practice. Why?

“The blockchain is the future of certification, and we believe that in the following years, more schools will use the public blockchain to secure their certificates and diplomas,” said Sylvain Kalache, co-founder of Holberton School. “It is much more efficient, secure, and simple than what you can find today in the industry. We think first about our students — we want to make sure that our certificates will always remain valid and verifiable by employers. It will also keep them safe and impossible to copy or hack.”

For a parent-managed learner profile to flourish, we need a distributed system of trust in the credentials in that profile. I think blockchain may be a viable approach, and I very much look forward to learning from Holberton School and the others who will surely follow their trailblazing path.

Note: Thanks to Tom Vander Ark for allowing me to cross-post at Getting Smart on November 1, 2015.

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  1. October 26, 2015    

    Interesting article, for sure. I just finished listening to the book The Age of Cryptocurrency: How Bitcoin and Digital Money Are Challenging the Global Economic Order by Paul Vigna and Michael J. Casey. It was fascinating to say the least, but the best part about it was learning about block chain technology. I had not thought of it in terms of student transcripts, but it easily could be adapted for this. I highly recommend reading the above-mentioned book.

  2. David Vince
    January 29, 2016    

    What could blockchain mean for existing models of higher education? Perhaps it could be easier for students to earn a degree by gaining badges for modules studied at multiple universities, meaning greater choice of provider for students.

    • January 29, 2016    

      David, thanks for your comment. I strongly suspect you are not alone in this line of thinking, although there are two separate but related issues that would need to be tackled for this to occur: (1) policy changes that allow and/or encourage the ability of students to earn easily transferable credits (or partial credits) at trusted institutions and/or organizations of the student’s choosing and on the student’s timeline; and (2) a technical structure to implement this policy. In addition to the example of the use of blockchain by Holberton, you may be interested in the work of the MIT Media Lab. This article, “Certificates, Reputation, and the Blockchain,” is a great read that both teases out some of the issues and context for this idea, as well as describes how the MIT Media Lab implements it:

      I’d be very interested in learning about other real-world examples of the application of blockchain in education/for learning.

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  1. Beyond Badges: Why Personalized Learning Advocates Need to Care about Blockchain | Getting Smart on November 1, 2015 at 5:11 am
  2. Beyond Badges: Why Personalized Learning Advocates Need to Care about Blockchain - e-Learning Feeds on January 27, 2016 at 12:15 am
  3. Beyond Badges: Why Personalized Learning Advoca... on February 1, 2016 at 12:54 am
  4. Beyond Badges: Why Personalized Learning Advocates Need to Care about Blockchain | EdTech Strategies | Flexibility Enables Learning on February 1, 2016 at 12:55 am

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